The proverbs of learning and development (1-3)

31 Jan
January 31, 2013

Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element of language that best encapsulates a society’s values and beliefs is its proverbs.  Proverbs have been in use for thousands of years and have an almost magical way of capturing history, wisdom and strategy.  Proverbs are also about opposites (as we shall see).  Whilst “Many hands make light work” we also know (or think we do) that “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

Proverbs therefore have the ability to provide opposite views of potentially the same situation; they are the Ying and Yang, and for that reason sit perfectly together.

As Rabbi Moses Ibn Ezra said, “A proverb has three characteristics: few words, good sense and a fine image.”  How true he was.

The word cloud at the top of this post shows the words that are used in English proverbs, with the size of each word indicating how often it occurs.  It’s interesting to note that the two most common words in English proverbs are ‘good’ and ‘never’.  A bit of armchair psychology leads to the conclusion that, if proverbs really do reflect belief, then the English are (or at least were when these proverbs were coined) inclined to be virtuous but negative – not so far from the truth, perhaps?

But enough of the theory; let’s get down to the learning!  For this week’s blog post I wanted to take you to a slightly lighter but equally stimulating place, and for that I decided to explore the application of proverbs for today’s Learning and Development professionals.

In this post I’ll explore the following proverbs:

  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  2. A little learning is a dangerous thing
  3. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

OK, so let’s get started by looking at the application of our first proverb within the Learning and Development environment.

1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Learning and development professionals just love the new stuff in life; it’s true!  Over the years we’ve moved from the classroom into ‘e’ and onto web 2.0, social media and so on; we just love the new and exciting and shiny.

But what I’ve seen (and experienced for myself) is a tendency to over focus on a single technology or delivery methodology.  Rather like fashion, there will always be a learning and development trend of the day.  This has been especially true of all things ‘e’ where according to Gartner we are now in the age of e-learning realism rather than the previous age of e-learning disappointment.  I’m also beginning to see similar trends with regards to social media and social learning where there is a distinct feeling that these approaches are silicon snake oil that if applied regularly to learning and development issues will actually cure all known ills!

As learning and development professionals we shouldn’t allow ourselves to put all our eggs in one basket by relying on a single delivery platform or approach.  We know in our heart of hearts (never mind the hoard of research) that a wide range of approaches and delivery methodologies works best; then there’s something for everyone.  So, spread it about a little; give learners options and choices and try to ensure that one size doesn’t fit all.  And above all make sure that you are not reliant on just one approach (more of this later).

2. A little learning is a dangerous thing

This is an often mis-quoted proverb, which most people think of as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”  Now I’m not one to suggest that learning and development folk don’t ‘get’ learning; quite the opposite in fact, but there are times when the total commitment to something that is not understood is almost lemming-like in approach. Just talk to learning and development professional (and remember I’m one of them) and they will talk about synchronous learning, the power of social media and so on.  But how many actually know what on earth they are talking about?  I’m sticking my neck out to say that I feel it’s sadly not as many as you may think.

You may wonder what evidence I have for such a (supposedly) wild statement.  On the Learning and Skills Group forum (membership 5800 and growing) I asked two simple questions.  What is social learning?  What actually constitutes learning and development?  The response was silence to say the least.  For the social learning question a grand total of two people responded whereas for the learning and development question the response was closer to five people.  Now I realise that we’re all busy in today’s 24/7/365(6) always-on world but what the lack of responses said to me was that whilst many people talk about the subject, very few (painfully few in fact) actually have the deep learning necessary to make real judgements and provide insight to others.

So, what’s the learning here for learning and development professionals?  It’s simple: stop blogging, shouting from the rooftops and reading half an article actually go and learn something rather than claiming “learning” because you read it somewhere.  Quoting URL’s and Twitter is no substitute for having learned what the real issues are from experiencing real life and real situations and real people – and for that matter, real learning.

3. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

This is a lovely and well-used proverb within business which fundamentally deals with the issue of change.  As we change we move from one state to another and when we do this it’s all too easy to throw away good learning from the old state.

So what does this mean for the learning and development professional?  Well, we are beset, no bombarded (!) with so many new ideas, theories and approaches.  Here are some you may recall from over the years:

  • Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)
  • Accelerated Learning
  • Action Centred Learning
  • Transactional Analysis
  • Performance Based Assessments
  • Payment by Results
  • E-Learning (including CBT, CAI, CAL and so on)
  • Mobile Learning
  • Social Learning

. . . I could go on and on . . . but I’m sure you understand what I’m saying here.

As learning and development professionals, all too often we see something new and think “Wow, this’ll make a massive impact in my organisation so I must adopt XYZ.”  I say this because I’ve been guilty of it myself.

The one thing we often fail to take with us when we change and adopt new practices is all the good learning from the previous state.  I have been amazed at the amount of research, learning and good practice that has seemingly been lost as we moved from the era of Computer Based Training into the era of e-learning.  Even today I look at some of the screen shots sent to me by various vendors and think: “Have we learned nothing?”  Forums are still full of questions that ask about the most fundamental issues regarding design, assessment, use of colour, interactions and so on.  But we already know these answers so why are people still asking?  Why have we “thrown” all this knowledge away when clearly it’s needed as much now as ever before?

And we should not forget that within learning and development, despite all the new technologies and approaches, there still remains the need to deliver for the organisation.  So when, or if, you adopt something new and sexy please don’t forget that the basics and fundamentals of great learning and delivery and impact have already been learned and are the way they are for a very good reason, because even old stuff still works well!

Keep a look out for some more proverbs coming your way soon . . .

And finally

Yesterday (30th January) was the birthday of Douglas “Doug” Carl Engelbart.  Doug’s name may not be well-known to us but his work is.  Doug is an early computer pioneer best known for his work with human-computer interaction.  Doug helped invent the mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to graphical user interfaces.  Happy birthday Doug and thanks so much for all your wonderful contributions.

Tags: , , , , ,
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *